Friday, October 31, 2008

Batman: The Long Halloween

Widely praised as one of the best Batman stories ever written, I was a bit underwhelmed when I finally got around to reading Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. Originally published about twelve years ago over thirteen issues, this detective story pits Batman, Jim Gordon and DA Harvey Dent against a serial killed dubbed ‘Holiday.’ Over the course of the narrative, Dent becomes Two-Face.

The novel is a continuation of Batman: Year One, with the mob gangsters making up a crucial part of the storyline. In their zest to bring down Gotham’s crime lord, Wayne, Gordon, and Dent all demonstrate to the reader their varying notions of justice. The three men debate the lengths they will go to bring the Roman to justice, and enter a pact, agreeing to bend the rules if necessary, but never to break them.

Each issue represents a different holiday, which in itself is an interesting tactic: as the series was originally published, each issue would correspond with that time of year. As time goes on, ‘Holiday’ seems to be targeting first one crime family and then another. But eventually the characters and the reader begin to suspect that Dent is behind it all. The inevitable twist at the end of such noir-ish tales was unsurprising and seemingly inconsequential for the greater Batman universe.

I’m honestly not sure why I didn’t like this more. Perhaps the obvious Godfather styled opening turned me off, perhaps I felt there should be a better emphasis on the ‘freaks’ of Gotham taking over for the mob. The best aspect was the different conceptions of justice the three main characters had, and the insights we got into who Bruce Wayne is as a man, even separate from the Batman person. I don’t recall if the particulars of his own feelings of culpability in his parents’ murders had been detailed before, but that delivered an emotional punch unequalled in many comics.

Sale’s artwork was definitely up to the task, capturing the noir look in a way that few can. However, I do feel that the dominantly brown tones that are emblematic of the Godfather
movies would have served the story better than the blues and blacks common to Batman. Setting this story in the 1930s also might have been a nice touch, though it would obviously have lost a bit of the connection with Year One.

Still, an entertaining, lengthy story that I am sure everyone else will give his or her highest recommendation. I just wished it hadn’t been hyped to me so much; I might have been able to approach it without prejudging.

The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon

As I briefly mentioned last week when the National Book Award nominees were announced, Aleksandar Hemon left Sarajevo for America in 1992, getting out just before the worst of the Yugoslavian ethnic wars really began. He hadn’t planned on staying, but by the time he was ready to go back there wasn’t all that much to entice his return. He needed cash, so he took some menial jobs and began to learn English.

He was a writer in his native language, and later became a commended writer in English. The comparison with Nabokov is emphasized a bit much in the readings I’ve done about Hemon, but I did see an interesting comment on the two. Nabokov traveled in well-educated circles, whereas Hemon was a canvasser for Greenpeace, and learned English by speaking to all sorts of people one meets when knocking on doors. I haven’t read enough of either author to really weigh in here, but I would say there is a sort of gritty realism in Hemon that is absent in Nabokov.

The Question of Bruno collects many of the short stories Hemon wrote in the late 90s. Like most early works of fiction, even my own, the stories here seem to draw heavily from his own experiences, particularly his childhood growing up in a Ukrainian/Bosnian household and his struggles as a Bosnian refugee trying to make it in America. His prose seems foreign yet familiar. The second-language aspect only really noticeable when he (purposefully) uses a phrase in an abnormal way to call attention his characters’ perceptions of the American world.

‘Exchange of Pleasant Words’ is a fictional memoir of the Hemon family history and a Hemon family reunion of sorts. ‘Inspired by the success of the Sarajevo Olympiad and the newly established ancient family history, the family council, headed righteously by my father, decided to have an epic get-together, which was to be held only once, and was to be recorded as the Hemoniad.’ The story also lays the foundation for various characters named Hemon to pop up all over this book; in many cases the reader is unsure of any relation.

‘Blind Josef Pronek & Dead Souls,’ is a novella that seems a thinly veiled story of the author’s circumstances arriving in America. Though it does display Hemon’s skill with prose, I often found myself bored as I made my way through it. The story is episodic in nature, but even some of the episodes seem to fall flat. I’ve also read that Pronek is the protagonist in Nowhere Man, Hemon’s first novel, and that is a bit troublesome for I do not know if I want to read an entire novel focused on this character.

‘The Sorge Spy Ring’ is an interesting tale of a boy whose imagination about spies hits close to home when his own father is taken. But longer than the actual story are massively long footnotes that did little to add any further meaning. These footnotes concern the life of Sorge and provide an overall biography of the man. The constant interruptions hurt this story greatly.

In addition, a photograph placed before the first page of each story served to set the tone. Some were incredibly well selected, like the photo of Archduke Ferdinand just before his assassination, and where in the background you can see a man holding an accordian that is prominent in the story. Others, only seem to be distantly related and therefore the device loses effect. I know that Hemon uses photographs extensively in The Lazarus Project, and this being an interest of mine will likely lead me to this novel before too long.

Hemon is a gifted writer, and his strange but interesting prose is worth looking at in TheQuestion of Bruno. But I have read later short stories that I found much more palatable. One thinking of trying Hemon might want to search for some more recent short fiction by the Bosnian-American.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party

Though I’ve read very few young adult novels, I honestly haven’t seen what makes them so different from adult fiction. To me it’s more a choice of whether the content can be marketed better to the growing legions of children who only have so much Harry Potter to read, rather than something endemic that delineates it from general fiction. A couple of months ago I read Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist which I thought was decent, though I did feel that seventeen year old girls likely think about sex more than the protagonist did. But the experience made me want to explore a new area by trying out some of the more acclaimed young adult fiction, especially to test my thesis: is the young adult genre merely for marketing, or is there a real separation between it and mainstream literature.

The touted release of the second volume in M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation series called my attention to the first, which won the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature. Entitled The Pox Party, the narrative concerns the young black boy Octavian born shortly before the American Revolution, who is raised in a house with his mother and a group meant to resemble the Royal Society in aim but not in reach. The boy is taught Latin and the arts, learns to play brilliantly on the violin, but also is subject to some rather bizarre experimentation: all his food is weighed, as are his feces, so that calculations as to his usage can be performed.

After the house, the College of Lucidity, loses its benefactor, Octavian begins to get a sense of the treatment other black men and women are subject to. He is deprived of his books and whipped often. In an attempt to study the varying effect of smallpox on a large white and black population, Mr. Gitney, head of the college, recruits those who haven’t experienced the illness and offers to house and infect them with a mild strain so that they may build immunity to the disease without worry that it could be an especially virulent form. Though all are infected, only two people die: one being Octavian’s mother.

The novel is said to be drawn from the later writings of Octavian, and upon witnessing the death of his mother the reader is subjected to the scratching out of print that had already been laid out. While one can make out a word here and there, Octavian’s response to his mother’s death is more powerful for what we don’t see. The page acts as a palimpsest that can be read concurrently in two ways. An intriguing effect.

Where Anderson lost me was in the third section, where all information is conveyed through letters of a Patriot soldier home to his sister. This soldier meets Octavian, who has escaped enslavement, and so we still follow the boy’s story and are filled in on aspects of what is happening within the greater context of the war, a decision I understand even if I don’t share. Losing the voice of Octavian lost this reader, and only when that voice returns in a later section did I reengage with the narrative.

Even without the Volume I on the cover, one would know that a Volume II is planned because we get no real satisfaction out of the journey. In fact, the arc of this novel is hard to establish. I have guesses as to how it can be defined, but without reading the second (and possibly third) volumes, I can’t know if my hunches are accurate or not.

Still, there was a lot to like in The Pox Party, especially the character of Octavian who anyone will come to care about deeply within the first fifty pages. I’ll be reading more of Anderson before too long, though probably not more about Octavian for a while. And I would appreciate recommendations of other young adult literature you feel would be worth looking into.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Nine by Jeffrey Toobin

Though we all learned in a high school government class the actual rules and regulations of Supreme Court practice, what Jeffrey Toobin reveals in his masterful The Nine is that the Court is first a group of individuals, characters if you will, and they are the ones who really run everything. There’s an element of politicking that the justices downplay, but those able to wage a political war effectively often have great influence over their peers, and thus over America itself.

Beginning roughly at the time of O’Connor’s nomination to the court in 1981 by Ronald Reagan, To
obin leads the reader through an exciting account of the major events up to the 2006-7 Supreme Court term. In prose that is eminently readable and often exciting, he is able to throw off the shroud of inner court workings to help the reader see how each justice comes to their decisions and tries to influence others.

Each justice is given several pages dedicated to backstory so we can get a better conception of who they are as people. After reading about his autobiography last year, I feel that Clarence Thomas is one of the most interesting people on the bench. I might not agree with pretty much any of his views, save that both he and I think NASCAR is pretty cool. But seeing the anger that he has carried his whole life, especially after his difficult confirmation, and I can’t help but feel sorry for him. Toobin always drops these mini-biographies into a portion of the greater workings of the court so as to contextualize the proceedings by offering the personal knowledge.

Though it isn’t Toobin’s purpose to explain exactly how the court functions, one is able to learn a lot more about the inner workings of the justices than one would learn from a stale civics book. His style adds a certain amount of romance to the Court, bringing the justices to life as well rounded people rather than old guys in black robes. From my perspective, I felt this more a book of journalism than anything else; no agenda was apparent and only rarely would a word here or there cue one in as to Toobin’s own personal views.

I believe I came out with a greater appreciation of Stephen Breyer than I have had before, due to his personality and ability to influence others. Breyer has been criticized for being a moderate, but to me he comes across as quite practical, always thinking about how cases will affect the real world. This kind of thinking is evidenced in his decision to remove the Ten Commandments from courtrooms yet let the old statue of the Commandments at the Capitol here in Austin remain. To me, those are sensible decisions that should appease the majority of the people.

One also sees new Chief Justice John Roberts philosophy of narrow decisions is seemingly a good one. Decide cases in the narrowest way possible in order to reduce the effect on other laws. Yet that very practice is now allowing he and the conservative majority to write around previously established laws without overturning them. Stare decisis, or precedent, is slowly but steadily vanishing from influence.

The Nine was named one of the ten best books of 2007 by the New York Times, and though I didn’t read every book published last year, I’d have to agree. I don’t have cable so I am unsure as to what kind of on-air commentator Toobin is, but if his voice there even remotely resembles the book then he is one of the better people in cable news.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gods of Night by David Mack

As I am still trying to figure out what I want this site is evolving into, I realized that I don’t really want to write reviews of everything I read. But what I do want is to respond with a post on most of what I read, whether that is a review or just a starting point for a discussion about something else. For my own clarity as much as everyone else’s, I wanted to say that the books, television, occasional movie, and other readings that headline these entries are merely the beginning of my thinking.

David Mack’s Gods of Night is the first novel in the supposedly earth-shattering Destiny trilogy, an event so large it could change the face of ST literature forever. Sounds corny, but that’s what has been promised. Intended to be a crossover event, we get no crossover at all here: Picard is on the Enterprise, Riker is across the quadrant on
Titan, and new captain Ezri Dax is in the Gamma Quadrant. And we also see what happens to Columbia after the events of Kobayashi Maru, though the same battle in the two novels couldn’t have been presented any more differently. You’d think the novels had two different editors. But they didn’t.

The Titan thread carries on the character development from that series quite well. The Enterprise one carries on from it's series too, but not so well. Due to the very good work in the former and the atrocious character assassination in the latter, one might just chalk this up to Mack doing the best with what he had. The previous ‘Enterprise after Nemesis’ books have been pretty fucking bad.

The Dax thread doesn’t work. Stuff happens that needs to happen for the plot, but Ezri is the only prominent of the DS9 Relaunch to appear and what’s happened to her since Fearful Symmetry is played so close to the vest that her inclusion seems to be a token one.

What really bugs me is how Ezri Dax became a captain: both her captain on the Aventine and her first officer were killed, so she got the promotion. Why didn’t they bring in someone else? The explanation given is that the advanced officer ranks were thinned out mightily during the Dominion War five years before. Plausible, until one looks at the number of Starfleet officers in this very series who are at the commander rank or higher and are
n’t in a command:

• Worf
• Dr. Crusher
• Christine Vale

• Tuvok
• Deanna Troi
• Geordi LaForge
• Miranda Kadhota (maybe, sources differ)
• Two additional commanders who are watch officers on Enterprise

Assuming that Starfleet is at fifty percent of its ideal troop level four years after the Dominion War, which I think is granting more than has been demonstrated, the fact that nine commanders are currently st
ationed to only two ships, some with over a decade of service at the highest levels of day-to-day ship operations, makes me unable to believe that there aren't dozens, if not hundreds of people more qualified. And not only that, but then Dax got to replace her whole command crew with more inexperienced officers. That just doesn’t make any sense to me.

I’ve written before about my issues with the Enterprise crew between the end of the Dominion War and Nemesis before, so I won’t rehash those arguments here. But such decisions make it incredibly hard to suspend my disbelief.

But a recent online discussion with some friends made me realize that this isn’t such a clear-cut issue. Gods of Night would be a difficult novel for someone only familiar with the television shows and movies to pick up and really get. Picard and Crusher are married and having a kid? Wasn’t Ezri Dax an ensign counselor in DS9? Didn’t Janeway kill the Borg forever in Endgame? There’s not a lot that someone would find familiar, or even probable. I’m not saying this is a fault of Mack per se, but the inability of an outside reader to be able to penetrate the complex continuity of the novels is somewhat alarming for someone who is a fan and sees the broadening of the fanbase as good for the fiction line.

That said, having familiar characters from the shows remain together does reinforce to some degree a sense of continuity for an outsider to lean on until he figured things out. Maybe it would make more in-universe sense to have Worf, Tuvok, and others captaining their on ships, but such a move would likely alienate readers.

Perhaps I am being too hard on the creators at Pocket Books, especially as much of their work has been constrained by the canon issues of Nemesis. It’s sort of a lose-lose situation.

As for Gods of Night, it was a better written novel than I had expected from Mack, but it all seemed to be set-up for the next (or possibly final) book. Basically the first third of a 1200 page book rather than the first book of a three-book trilogy. He did well with what he had, but I kind of think that I figured out the whole Borg aspect already. More to come when I get around to the rest of Destiny.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde

The only town in Eastern Bosnia to avoid ethnic cleansing, Gorazde was surrounded by hostile Serbian forces for most of the mid-1990s. Though many of us may know a fair amount about the conflict, especially as it pertained to the Clinton Administration’s failure to stop the genocide due to the previous military failure in Somalia, the perspective shown in Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde is likely unfamiliar territory.

Sacco trained to be a journalist in school, yet was unhappy with the jobs he found afterwards, feeling
that he couldn’t write long, involved stories on specific subjects. He turned back to cartooning in order to make a living, and lucky for us, he managed to blend the two into some of the most moving comic work one will ever read. Like his acclaimed Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde is a sort of personal documentary.

Told mostly through the experiences of Edin, a graduate student in Sarajevo before the war, Sacco blends the stories of others along with his own. It’s not hard to see how television news affected the narrative: as a character relates his/her story directly to the reader, Sacco often slides in a comment here and there to contextualize. At times it really felt like I was reading an episode of 60 Minutes.

Though I did not feel like I got a better understanding of the Bosnian region and conflict, I also don’t think Sacco was aiming that direction. Instead, we see a slice of life from the community, knowing what it was like for those men, women, and children to live through a war. Of course, not just any war: a war where Muslims were killed just for being Muslim.

As Sacco leads us through the interviews and story of his time in country, we are occasionally given a glimpse at the outside world, especially as the Dayton Accords draw ever closer. As the residents of Gorazde rejoice with the truce, almost none feel that the war is truly over. At the book’s conclusion, Sacco returns a year later and we see how various people we’ve met have gone on in the following months. Though we are pleased to see Edin finishing his degree, we cannot help but feel sorry for others who sometimes are less happy now than they were when on the front lines.

Sacco is doing something so far outside the mainstream in comics that one wonders why more attention is not directed his way. Safe Area Gorazde is the equivalent of an episode of Frontline, done in a medium that is dying for creators to push such boundaries. It’s great journalism, it’s great comics. And as soldiers from the Iraq War come home and look to tell their stories, it would be surprising if a few didn’t follow in Sacco’s footsteps.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Drowned Life by Jeffrey Ford

As I attempted to begin this review for the past few days, I was at a loss on how to situate myself within the work of Jeffrey Ford or how to situate his work within my life. I only knew him as a fantasy author, a genre that I care little to nothing for, so the fact that I even listened to an interview with him on the Bat Segundo show is surprising enough. That I was persuaded to seek out some of his non-fantasy work is even a little more unlikely, and that I enjoyed his new short story collection The Drowned Life as much as I did highly improbable.

That’s not to say that I thought it was a great collection; it’s not. There are a number of fantasy-laced tales involving manticores and other bizarre scenarios that I found hard to make much of. The title story involves a m
an who drowns, finding that an entire world exists among the people who have met their fate in such a way, yet finds communication with the world above possible. While this situation is not without interest, I never felt any real emotional connection with the protagonist.

Where Ford shines is in stories that lack a fantastical element. “The Bedroom Light” begins with a couple lying in bed and gossiping about the neighbors, while avoiding the elephant in the room: the woman’s recent miscarriage. The emotion crackles on the page, the dialogue and description equally well done. Yet the narrative goes on a few ages too many, and a enlightening conclusion for the reader seems forced. This happens again and again in Ford’s better stories: plot seems forced upon us, epiphanies feel false and/or unnecessary.

The best piece might be “The Scribble Mind,” in which a young acquaintance of the narrator tells him that she’s discovered a scribble that appears in all sorts of places that she believes is a symbol of those who can remember their time in the womb. As she tries to get closer and closer to the secret, sinister forces seem to move against the couple, as she slowly drives herself near insane trying to duplicate the scribble herself. This oddball premise reminded me of Ted Chiang or Jonathan Lethem, though perhaps not as skilled as either.

Ford studied with John Gardner, so I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that I enjoyed this collection, nor that the epiphianic endings are omnipresent. The fact that plot slips into these situations in a seemingly unnatural sense is likely more the cause of my own biases than anything else. But it seems to me that Ford is like a Triple A baseball player. He can do a lot of things well, but he can’t hit the curve ball. The characterization is there, the situation is there, even the prose is decent. But he can’t seem to put it all together and make it to the show.

The Drowned Life has some good stories, and it has some bad ones. I hope in the future Ford can put it all together and write a really great piece of fiction.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Joe the Plumber

I only watched the first thirty minutes of last night’s debate because I had to work, but I did manage to hear the first invocation of the now famous Joe the Plumber. Joe Wurzelbacher, in the midst of his fifteen minutes, turns out not to really be a plumber at all. The New York Times is reporting this morning that though he works in the plumbing business, he’s never held a license, belonged to the union, or completed an apprenticeship.

Is this worthy of news coverage? Actually, I think it is. Through no fault of his own that I am able to qu
ickly discern (aside from a willingness to be vague about his plumbing activities), Joe was misrepresented to be something he wasn’t. Plumbers, like electricians and others, are skilled workers who almost always belong to unions. At the highest levels they can be very well compensated, but the average guy more than likely works for someone else and is a lot more like the union worker in the petroleum industry of thirty years ago than anything else. It’s not a cardinal sin by any means, but allowing the public to assume that Joe was something he’s not is unethical reporting.

The Times piece goes on to say that Joe also owes back taxes, and that his understanding of Barack Obama’s tax plan and how it would affect him personally seem to be flawed. Chances are high that he wouldn’t see his taxes rise at all.

Now Joe is an emblem for both sides. The Obama campaign will be helped by pointing out that in fact Joe the Plumber should buy that business and not worry about tax hikes on wealthy small businesses. The McCain campaign is still hitting Obama for all those other people like Joe who will be subject to higher taxes, but their emblem has now been exposed as a flawed one. Their point is a salient one, but now they’ve framed it through the prism of Joe the Plumber, a guy just trying to make it the American way but is prevented by the Obama take hikes. But that Joe is a creation; he doesn’t exist. The message will lose resonance when seen through the lens of this new information.

I’m not taking a side here; I am a dedicated member of a political party who almost always votes along the party lines, but my candidate for president was out of it by March. I’m just trying to analyze what I find to be an interesting, if ridiculous, situation.

Joe certainly seems to be milking these fifteen minutes, appearing on a dozen television shows and a webcast with Katie Couric. But unlike a radio host I listened to earlier this afternoon, I don’t think we’ll be talking about Joe in the future when we think back on this election. The message just doesn’t have any resonance anymore.

Slightly off topic: Bob Schieffer is fucking cool. I can't believe that of all the debates, his was the one I missed.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

National Book Awards

The nominees for the National Book Awards were announced this morning. Here’s a list of the fiction nominees:

• Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project
• Rachel Kushner, Telex from Cuba
• Peter Matthiessen, Shadow Country
• Marilynne Robinson, Home
• Salvatore Scibona, The End

Though I find that when books get favorably reviewed in the Times and The New Yorker, I tend to pick them up, I’m a bit surprised I haven’t read any of these yet, nor that some of the things I had read aren't listed, e.g. Lahiri's
Unaccustomed Earth. I do have The Lazarus Project and Hemon’s first novel sitting around here somewhere, and I picked up Gilead a week or two ago. But I barely recall reading something about Kushner several months ago.

What always interests me is the way being listed and then short-listed for these awards seems to be an attemp
t to gain additional readership, in other words, sell more books. Were I to walk into a Barnes & Noble tomorrow morning, the stickers would already be on whatever of these books they have in stock. Thousands of people who never would have taken a chance on the second novel of a Bosnian refugee who came to this country knowing no English, will be sitting down with a copy of his novel and probably leaving it half read because the prose (which I find astonishingly fresh and good) just doesn’t work for them. You can check out a short story by Hemon courtesy of The New Yorker.

And here’s where the listing to increase readership and thus drive sales clashes with the artistic integrity of the award. I’m glad that people are going to take a chance on Hemon. And I’m excited that there are a couple of books here I hadn’t even known about and will likely pick up at some point, especially Scibona’s The End. But if literary fiction sales are really declining, I think it is a testament to National Book Foundation’s integrity that they aren’t afraid to throw a book that might not have mainstream popularity but nevertheless be a remarkable work into the mix.

Two years ago, Richard Powers won the National Book award in fiction for The Echo Maker
(another book that is on a shelf in the other room, unread). Familiar as I am with Powers’s writing, it could very well be a hard book for a lot of people to enjoy, as the reviewers at will attest to. That same year, Mark Z. Danielewski was nominated for Only Revolutions, a typographical funhouse of a novel that can be read from either side, optionally flipping the book over every eight pages so you can see the different narratives intertwine. People seem even more polarized on this one. Neither of these novels had a lot of mainstream appeal, but the Foundation saw fit to nominate them because they represented the best in that year’s fiction. There would have been no outrage at the snub of Danielewski had he not been nominated, a more populist work could have been chosen in his stead.

Honoring the best book written in America is a worthy endeavor. They even have a banquet where the awards are given, sort of like the academic Oscars. But rather than selling out, as they so easily could do, the National Book Awards from my perspective should be commended for getting this right.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Seconds of Pleasure by Neil LaBute

Best known for his savage plays, like In the Company of Men or Fat Pig, Neil LaBute has been in a bit of a slump lately. I read his play Some Girls earlier this year and found it to be contrived and foolish, seeming more to be an emulator of LaBute than the man himself. He has a way of capturing the most horrible aspects of a character, and then forcing us to confront those very aspects that reside within us.

In his collection of short stories, Seconds of Pleasure, there is a lot to like. In ‘Time-Share,’ a marri
ed couple fights after the wife has caught her husband cheating with the person in the next time-share. The conversation reminds me of the best of Roth, capturing the perfect back and forth between two people. ‘Opportunity’ sees a woman explain her past to her husband as they drive home through the fog, with wounds from childhood being relived and new discoveries about connections between that past and her present coming to bear.

Unfortunately though, the collection is mostly filler. Of the twenty stories, maybe eight or so are worthy of being here. Another aspect of LaBute’s fiction that maybe shouldn’t be surprising is the way almost all of these stories are vignettes that could easily be performed on stage. Were I still acting, ‘Time-Share’ would almost certainly be a piece I would try and perform. ‘Opportunity’ could just as easily be a monologue as it is a story. In some of the filler material, one has the distinct impression that these stories started as work for a play, and for whatever reason weren’t working. Maybe they were too limited for anything beyond the one scene, maybe they just came out in a way that the writing was not able to be presented on stage. But perhaps these failures were more endemic to the material and that is why these stories seem so unfulfilling; they don’t connect the reader to the narrative by forcing him to identify with those darker parts of himself.

While Seconds of Pleasure was a mixed bag, the two named stories make it worth tracking down. The savagery of LaBute’s drama is delightful and horrifying at the same time, something that seems rare in these days of black and white morality in art.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas L. Friedman

Being under 30, my firsthand knowledge of politics and world events only goes back about 15 years, so most things that happened in the Reagan Administration and before are historical to me rather than something I can look back on and remember. As this presidential election plays out, we are constantly reminded of the strategies employed by previous candidates, but looking at these things from a historical perspective is somewhat strange: since I already know the outcome to the election, I tend to view strategies through that lens rather than the situation as it existed on the ground at that time.

The same thing is true with respect to foreign affairs, only more so. I was almost exclusively interested in domestic matters before September 11th, so I only distantly followed events like Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands at the White House. But as the last eight years have increased the relevance of the Middle East to our country, I have become progressively more and more annoyed with those who speak authoritatively about something they know so little about. My reading serves as much to inform me what I don’t know than fill in gaps in my knowledge, so I’ve realized how little about Israel and Palestine I can really speak intelligently

Therefore I’ve been reading extensively on the region, last week finally getting to Thomas L. Friedman’s From Beirut to Jerusalem, an account of his time serving as a reporter in Lebanon and Israel. Shifting from memoir to reporting adeptly, Friedman is able to help the reader understand the situation, as it existed in the 1980s. While I learned quite a bit about the political situation in Beirut involving the Druse, Maronite Christians, and Arafat’s PLO, what stuck with me the most was the depiction of the everyday citizen. What must it be like to live in a world where car bombs have killed someone you know?

It shames me to admit, but I really didn’t have a good sense of Lebanon’s history prior to this reading. Considered the ideal with so many factions of people living together in relative harmony, the tensions underneath eventually exploded in violence, something that hindsight sees as inevitable. Friedman is at his best when intertwining interviews with people on the ground along with leaders of the various factions, occasionally throwing in his own viewpoint in order to flesh out the picture. What we tend to get is a real cross-section of the culture.

As he moves on to Jerusalem, the book shifts in tone. There is much less of Friedman himself in these chapters. Instead he focuses on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and how that was handled during his time there. I have always been one to sympathize with Palestine, but reading these passages helped me to evolve my thoughts. Not that I am less sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinian people, but now I feel that I have a better grasp to the actual problems in the region and how they might concessions be made by each side in order to achieve lasting peace.

My edition had a chapter written in 1994, five years after the book was first published. In it, Friedman opines at length about the direction he feels the two sides must take in order to solve some of the conflict. Though no expert, I believe much of this to still be applicable today. I was fascinated by how little the region has seemed to change in the intervening years, even with the rise of Hamas and the death of Arafat. Though I would like a similar account of the intervening years, I nevertheless feel that From Beirut to Jerusalem to be quite valuable for anyone trying to understand the region. What happened twenty years ago may seem like old news to those of my generation, but in the communities of Lebanon and Israel, it seems like yesterday.

Amazon's Kindle

Call me cynical, but I’ve never really seen the appeal of the Amazon Kindle. With such a high price point, it’s a wonder that they’ve been able to sell as many as they have. The Kindle of course is an e-book reader, but doesn’t work as a phone nor does it allow much access to the internet. Essentially, it is a device with limited uses that is expensive; one lays out a big expenditure to Amazon for the privilege of buying all additional content from Amazon too.

With such a clunky appearance, the Kindle doesn’t have any aesthetic appeal for me either. But perhaps I could be persuaded to give it some real consideration; after all, I am young, read a lot, and have quite a bit of discretionary income. They ability to buy new bestsellers for only ten bucks is quite enticing. But unlike just abo
ut every other electronic device I might want to own, I can’t just run down to Best Buy and play with the interface to see how I like it.

Of course, I can and have done that with the iPhone, which unlike the Kindle is primarily a phone and internet device. Now with a new application called Stanza, owners of the iPhone can read books with the free pro
gram. So for the same price point, one can get all the features of the iPhone and read books as well. Why would anyone get a Kindle?

The one thing Amazon has going for it is the vast list of titles available, around 180,000. Stanza currently only offers books in the public domain—titles you could probably get for a buck at a used book store. But if/when they or a similar company starts signing deals with publishers to make that material available, I would imagine that we’ll see a shift away from the Kindle’s limited options.

All this said, I haven’t been a fan of e-books thus far. Perhaps it is because I have been stuck in front of a computer to read them rather than equipped with a portable device, or maybe I’m just old school enough to prefer a paperback. But I read the newspaper online everyday, so I can definitely see how I might really use such a device.

The Kindle is a good idea, and I applaud Jeff Bezos for wanting to put every book ever written ‘back into print’ by making it available for download. I know that my research would be greatly simplified if I could download all editions of a book into an electronic device that weighs a pound or two. But the constrictions inherent in Amazon’s business strategy make me think some serious reorganization will have to emerge soon or the Kindle is going to left on the sidelines.

Monday, October 6, 2008

100 Bullets: Once Upon a Crime

One thing I hate is crappy exposition, especially when it refers to a previous episode of a television show or novel in a series. It almost always comes off awkwardly as an info dump that breaks up the narration, and it annoys me because I’ve usually seen the episode or read the book in question already. I even notice it when watching a TV show coming back from a commercial: a character says something idiotic and obvious just to remind people what was happening before the break. Is all this really necessary?

But what I hate more is when not enough exposition is given, sometimes none. And that’s the problem I have with Once Upon a Crime, the eleventh collection of Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso’s noir series, 100 Bullets. I don’t know what the hell is going on half the time because I can’t remember the storyline well enough and no hints are ever dropped. The characters all dress the same, so only the hair or goatee is a giveaway as to who is who.

The more I think about it though, the more I think this is a result of reading collections rather than individual issues. Were I reading every month rather than several months apart, I might not have such an issue remembering what is happening. Is it Azzarello’s fault for writing for the individual issue reader rather than the reader of the collections?

Probably not. That’s likely how he is paid and how the series is marketed, at least initially. But the TPB industry is exploding, with more and more readers opting to just wait to read an entire arc at once rather than a piece at a time. So perhaps some compromise should be the norm, being faithful to the reader of the individual issues while giving a little direction to those preferring the TPB. Most comics don’t have this problem, but then again most comics aren’t as complex as 100 Bullets.

It is a great series, but the presentation alienates the casual reader, even to some extent the disciplined one. This problem will likely recur on other series as time goes on, and from a money standpoint the alienation of readers should be an issue of great focus for creators and publishers.

As for me, I think I might go back and reread all the trades. It’ll at least help me realize if the lack of exposition is an endemic problem or just an isolated one.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

A Contract with God by Will Eisner

The story is that Will Eisner was the first person to really try to tell a literary story using both words and pictures. I’m not certain that’s true, but his comic efforts do seem to stand apart from the typical superhero clich├ęs, and also have little in common with the underground Comix of Crumb and the like.

The four loosely connected stories in A Contract with God do read like short stories more than comi
cs. The linking device is an apartment building on Dropsie Avenue, an old style Jewish tenement in New York. It very well may be the location, but I was reminded of prose fiction by Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer as I made my way through the collection. Yet, Eisner’s characterization and writing fall far short of these masters, making his stories seem a pale imitation. In fact, I was reminded quite often of Anzia Yezierska’s work.

The title story is presented first, and though effectively rendered, the ending is a predictable one. Losing everything just when you’ve gained it all back is a worn plot device. The final story involves a group of city people going to stay at the same resort for the summer, and also is full of stock characters that provide little emotional res
onance. In fact, one gets the odd feeling that the fifteen-year-old boy who loses his virginity is in some way a character representing Eisner himself.

Quite haunting was the tale of the building’s superintendent, an older man who is somewhat of a sexual deviant. He goes everywhere with his faithful dog, his only true companion in the world. He is tricked by a wily ten-year-old girl into giving her a dime so he can see up her gown, only to have the girl poison his dog and steal all of his money. Though horribly wronged, bystanders of course side with the girl and the superintendent commits suicide because he can’t stand the loss of everything he has. Even a full day later, this story still moves me.

Where Eisner really shines is in his ability to set a mood with his drawing. As the mourning rabbi walks through the rain and breaks his contract with God, such simple images are used to capture his grief. And the presentation of the characters artistically in the final story is well rendered, though it still fails to elevate them from merely a stock status.

Eisner is considered to be the father of the graphic novel, and this collection, his first real attempt, is definitely worth your consideration. In cases like this I wonder if learning about the inventor of groundbreaking effects so long after those effects are commonplace causes us as readers to devalue it in some way, or maybe merely are unable to separate ourselves from what we already know. Definitely something to look for in the future.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Kobayashi Maru by Martin & Mangels

I live in one of the bigger state capitals around, and I work downtown near both the Capitol and City Hall. So I have firsthand knowledge of how many people it actually takes to run these governments: not just the elected, but also all the people that assist them and help run the infrastructure. I’d have to conservative say that several thousand people are needed each day just to run the upper echelons of the bureaucracy.

I say this because the new Coalition of Planets is one of the main plot points in Kobayashi Maru
by Michael A. Martin and Andy Mangels. The Coalition is made up of four planets, Earth, Vulcan, Tellar, and Andor, each with populations upwards of a several billion if not more. The state of Texas needs several thousand in just the top positions; the Coalition of Planets apparently only needs about fourteen. And I could go into about a hundred other reasons why this governmental body makes absolutely no practical sense, like why everyone else has an ambassador but Earth uses its Prime Minister for the same role, but what’s the point?

Politics makes for good stories; if you don’t believe me, turn on a freaking television. For most of the existence of Star Trek, the Federation government has been shown as some sort of monolithic body where everything works right and there is little dissension between members. That’s moronic, but beside the point here. The Coalition consists of four planets, none of whom trust each other, some of which outright hate each other. Political tension at the time of war should be the cornerstone of this post-Enterprise series. Even at such a small stage, the players should be wide-ranging with varying agendas. Maybe it’s impossible to show all of this, but rather than just giving us the viewpoint
of two people from Earth, maybe we could have at least some sense of the political consequences Samuels would have on his own planet: we get none in this book.

The plot of the novel works well enough, I suppose. Most of the elements seemed to function to set the stage for next year’s novel by Martin on the Romulan War. And to a large extent this worked for me; though I have been dissatisfied with their work over the last few books, I am interested to see where the story goes from here. However, I hope the writing gets better. The prose is horrible, almost painful to read at times. Here’s an example:
After Archer signed off with Gardner and returned to the bridge, the Starfleet Academy cadets' code for imponderable mysteries kept swirling through his mind.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Mentally translating those time-honored military placeholders into less polite nonmilitary parlance, he thought, What. The. Fuck.
Why would he think something and then think the explanation. It’s not as though third-person limited perspective is something hard to master, yet it seems beyond the authors at times. In fact, the novel reads as though it is a slightly polished rough draft. I can’t imagine that this book got much editorial oversight, something that is becoming hard to ignore as at least half of the fiction line is overseen by an seemingly incompetent editor.

Apparently the passage quoted above is the first use of the word ‘fuck’ in a ST book. You know, if I were in some of these insane situations, I'd curse a hell of a lot more than they do. It was a laugh line, but Data’s ‘Shit!’ in Generations might have been the only believable part of that movie.

Martin & Mangels also have the annoying habit of name-dropping other authors and editors into the narrative for no reason. It’s distracting and causes me to lose my suspension of disbelief. And at one point the Vulcans provide a ship with some advanced parts to help it go faster. One of those parts: the flux capacitor. Give me a fucking break.

At least the characterization of Archer was done well. It’s hard to believe anyone would act that way, but it was how the captain was played in all of seasons three and four. I didn't buy it then, nor do I now, but at least it's consistent.

Kobayashi Maru is a mediocre Star Trek novel, but it’s not unreadable. You know, I started to write merely an unfavorable review and it turned into an evisceration.
Let’s just hope the Romulan War book is somewhat better, though it's hard to imagine how it couldn't be.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Reading List: September 2008

Following the recent advice of my good friend Allyn Gibson, there is going to be a lot more content here in the coming months. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I burn through a lot of books. Rather than making a list at the end of each month with a couple of sentences on each, I am now trying to write a a few hundred words when I finish one. If current trends hold up, that should equal four to five posts a week, a number that will be supplemented with posts on other things as well.

That said, I like the round-up every month, so I likely will provide a quick list with links to the commentary. Anyway, in September I finished 18 books and graphic novels:

Check back for frequent updates throughout the month.

In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders

What I find so interesting about George Saunders is that while everyone seems to love his fiction, no one wants to sit down and read a bunch of it in a row. For instance, I only managed to make it through his latest collection of short fiction on my fourth attempt. The idea of delivery in such an instance makes me wonder why it so neglected in literary criticism; perhaps the flagging sales of short story collections can be attributed to this notion that readers don’t want to read eleven in a row.

His third collection of short fiction, In Persuasion Nation, is typical of the satire on our media-obsessed, consumer-driven culture. And though his work seems to be a bit absurdist, maybe a little too unusual for the average reader, it seems to work because even in some of the oddest stories he manages to hit an emotional core that is the envy of more traditional authors.

The stories in this collection seemed to work best when they were more traditional. For example, ‘The Red Bow’ presents the grief of a father and community over the mauling death of a little girl. Another story deals with the gambling impulse that leads a blue-collar worker to squander his opportunities to provide a Christmas for his family. Though the narrative voice is obviously Saunders with the slight nod towards absurdity, the realistic settings give the work a resonance that the more outlandish situations seem to lack.

The more absurdist the stories get the more a reader can rely on a biting satire of consumer culture. In ‘Jon,’ orphans are sold to a marketing group that uses them to test new products. Unfortunately, the story fails to move as the title character never really connects with the reader. In the title story, bands of advertising characters fight each other for dominance, the lesson being that all of life exists to promote some product or service and defying such a fact is impossible. ‘Comm Comm’ managed to evoke a sense of the Saunders at work in Civilwarland in Bad Decline (a book I enjoyed greatly), something none of the other stories managed to do.

In Persuasion Nation is an interesting collection and worth a look if you enjoy his essays in The New Yorker or are a fan of satire. But it is best approached intermittently; reading the stories consecutively will burn you out in a hurry.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion by Don Rosa

Since Star Trek novelists have been spewing out fanwank for years (pun intended), they might like to take a look at Don Rosa’s The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck to see how it is done correctly. Rosa gathered together all the references to Scrooge’s history in Carl Barks’s work, and I mean all of them, and found a way to use every bit in a twelve issue series taking the reader from Scrooge’s humble beginnings in Scotland as a shoeshine boy to his state of reclusion in Duckburg that immediately predates the Barks comics. It is very intelligently done, and quite enjoyable for even the adult who has a fond memory of the cartoon and of old Disney comics.

For me they all sat on a spinning rack down on the first floor of the library my mother worked in for a while, and since they were Disney my grandmother never put up too much of an objection to me bringing home a stack. Thus began my love of comics. But that of course, is another story.

Rosa did some other historical stories with Scrooge, both before and after his previous volume was published, and these tales are compiled in The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Companion. Scrooge’s relationship with Glittering Goldie is much more established in two very good stories, giving chronologically later events in Barks’s work more resonance. And Scrooge meets Teddy Roosevelt again, as the first president to leave the count
ry while in office teams up with the richest duck in the world to foil a revolution in Panama.

But there are misfires as well. Magica de Spell goes back in time to steal Scrooge’s lucky #1 dime before he gets it, only to realize that if he doesn’t get it himself then it won’t be the dime she wants. Yawn. Scrooge also apparently made a trip to sell cattle in Java only to witness the eruption of Krakatoa, in a story that was about eight pages too long.

A more slightly mixed tale is that of Scrooge and Buffalo Bill Cody’s gang team up to chase down the Dalton Boys. The whole thing is pretty contrived, which Rosa is known for though he overindulged this time, but t had all the beats of a quality DuckTales comic, especially with the integration of a famous historical character that took me by surprise.

A nice collection, though nowhere near the quality of Rosa’s first. That said, if you sample and enjoy the original, the Companion is probably worth checking out.

Atmospheric Disturbances by Rivka Galchen

How rare is a truly unreliable narrator? I hadn’t really considered the question before reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works last month, though now I wonder why I never thought of it before. The author almost always informs the reader through the perspective of another character how he/she should read a particular narrative. The easiest example is when a dog is the narrator and mistakes a car for a mechanical horse or something.

That’s why Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances is such an interesting first novel, especially considering this is not the sort of material usually mined by a young female debut novelist.  Dr. Leo Liebenstein opens the narrative with, ‘Last December a woman entered my apartment that looked exactly like my wife.’ From this point forward we foll
ow Leo as he searches for answers to who this impostor is, and how to reconcile all the strange events that seem to be occurring all around him.

Galchen provides Leo with a dispassionate take on the whole adventure, oftentimes separated from any empathy towards others. While his wife is bereft at his inability to accept that she is who she says she is, he maintains a distance that keeps his narration reliably unreliable, yet her dialogue allows the reader to achieve the empathy he is la
cking. This difficult combination is skillfully done, and is the only reason I would recommend that one pick up the novel.

The narrative probably could have been cut a bit; at times I was kind of bored with the pace. The book also contains a character named Tzvi Gal-Chen, a fellow with the Royal Academy of Meteorology, and a sort of lynchpin for analyzing the novel. Rivka Galchen’s father was named Tzvi, and was a meteorologist as well, yet there exists no such body as the Royal Academy of Meteorology. (At least not as depicted.) But rather than tickle me with the blur between fiction/nonfiction like David Benioff’s recent novel did, it annoyed me. I am unable to divine why such a choice was made, and therefore it glares at me as a mistake by the author.

And while I feel Atmospheric Disturbances had some miscues, I truly enjoyed the legitimate unreliable narration that is so rare. It is worth looking into, if only for the devices and not the story.